Hybrid Cars Are Ready, Are You?

Public transit is a wonderful way to move lots of people efficiently in urban areas. It has made progress in recent years getting funding and riders, and that's good. Yet, for better or worse, America is auto-centric. We Americans love our cars and most of us will give them up only when you pry our cold, dead fingers off the steering wheel. I include myself in this group not without some guilt. As an editor at an ecology-boosting magazine I should set an example. I do car-pool with one co-worker, sometimes two, and I drive a small car that gets pretty good gas mileage. Still, I could do better. What are my options if I must use a car (or simply won't give it up)?

When Hydrocarbons and Electrons Mingle

Leaving aside the discussion of whether or not electric cars have a role to play in transportation (they certainly do!), let's look at the best of what the auto industry offers right now for high-mileage, low-emission, all-purpose driving. The current approach combines gas engines with electric motors in so-called "hybrid" cars.

Toyota was the first company to release a mass-produced hybrid car with Prius (say PREE-us), a gasoline-electric sedan introduced initially in Japan in December of 1997. However, Honda beat Toyota to the American market with Insight (pun intended). Insight hit the streets of America in December, 1999, while Prius became available to American buyers in June of 2000. There are currently around 5,000 Insights and 13,000 Priuses on American roads, according to Honda and Toyota public relations people. Japan has more than 50,000 Prius owners. Current production goals are 6,500 Insights and 13,000 Priuses per year for the American market.

These cars comprise two practical options for reducing our gasoline consumption and emissions. Each has its market: the four-door Prius for families or those who need to carry more than one passenger, the two seat Insight for singles or couples who want a sporty car. Each takes a different approach to hybrid power. I drove each car for a week and I'll tell you what I like or dislike about them.

Power Trains of Thought

Both cars use internal combustion engines coupled with electric motors fed by nickel-metal-hydride batteries to power the drive train. Both use their gas engines as well as regenerative braking to recharge the battery pack -- you never need to plug these cars in. In both cases the engine is smaller than it would need to be to power the car by itself. Insight's electric motor is sandwiched between the engine and the transmission and is used to boost the power of the engine when extra horsepower is needed, for acceleration to cruising speed, hill climbing, passing, etcetera. This approach, joined with an aerodynamic, lightweight aluminum body and safety cage enables Insight to achieve nearly seventy miles to a gallon of gas. Insight's gas engine is always used to drive the wheels, the electric motor is never used by itself to move the car.

Prius has a larger electric motor that can move the car without help from the gas engine. The gas engine provides motive power and generates electricity, either to run the motor or to recharge the car's battery pack. At low speeds Prius often runs solely on electricity. The engine starts and stops as needed for power assistance or generation. At higher speeds it's mainly the engine that moves the car and it stays on most of the time. The electric motor is used for extra power when needed. If you take your foot off the gas pedal to coast or brake, the engine shuts off and the electric motor is used as a generator to recharge the battery pack. Come to a complete stop and the engine shuts off (unless the air conditioning is blasting). It's eerily quiet at stop lights -- as if you've parked and turned the car off. As soon as you touch the gas pedal the car springs to life, first the electric motor, then, if needed, the engine starts generating/recharging again.

The whole process is displayed in real-time animation on the in dash color LCD screen so you know whether the engine is driving the wheels or just generating electricity, and whether the motor is driving the wheels or charging the battery. At first, I found myself constantly watching it, almost mesmerized, when driving the car -- a little distracting when you're on the highway. After a while I mostly tuned it out and just glanced at it now and then.

Prius Promise and Problems

The in-dash screen in Prius is touch sensitive and is also used with the radio and optional CD player to control station presets and track selection. This is bad ergonomics for the driver, who must look at the screen over in the center of the dash before making a selection. Virtual buttons have no tactile quality. With a standard radio you can usually change the station by feel. A couple of other ergonomic boo-boos are the locations of the automatic shift lever and the dual mirror controls. The shift lever sticks vertically out of the front of the dash to the right of the steering wheel and blocks the driver's view of the volume control knob when in gear. The mirror controls on the left of the steering wheel are also out of view and slightly out of reach, forcing the driver to lean forward, adjust, lean back, check the mirrors, repeat. All of the other controls are easily within reach. Climate controls are easy to understand.

This centered dash arrangement includes the digital speedometer and trip meters, high up on the dash -- just below the windshield. This may have been done to minimize production differences (and costs) between left-hand drive cars for North America and right-hand drive cars for Japan and other countries that drive on the wrong side of the road. It's similar to the dash design of Toyota's entry-level Echo, which also shares the vertically oriented body styling. Toyota claims they break even on every Prius they sell, so anything that reduces production costs without compromising safety is worth considering.

The Prius cabin is spacious and visibility is good all around. The seats are well cushioned and soft on the tush. They don't exactly grip you, however. The front windshield is quite large and the sloping hood cannot be seen from the front seats. Looking at the road ahead is like peering through a picture window from an easy chair. Quite comfortable.

Road Trip #1: Prius

On our first long trip with the Prius, we achieved around 44 mpg, right up near where it's rated. Prius handled like any other sedan of its size with some minor differences. It seemed to have adequate passing power on the highway. The steering felt a bit mushy at high speed, but was otherwise pretty responsive. Acceleration is quicker than you might expect. There's no noticeable change when the gas engine comes on or goes off except a slight increase or decrease in engine noise.

Prius feels like a mature car. It requires little change in driving habits, although your mileage will vary as it does in any car depending on how you drive. My mileage was not so good in the city. Prius is rated higher for city driving (52 mpg) than for highway (45 mpg) yet I was unable to achieve better than high thirties. This may be because my city commute involves a few miles of highway driving and even less on city streets. Prius' 52 mpg city rating is based on a lot more low speed driving that makes greater use of the electric motor -- the stop-and-go of dense traffic. I also heard from a Prius owner that the car gets better mileage when warmed up, so my short commute hampered that as well.

Overall I was pleased with the Toyota Prius driving experience.

Insight into my Driving Habits

Insight looks and feels like a sports car. It doesn't perform like one, but then it's not meant to. Lower profile, wraparound bucket seats hold you snugly in the cockpit and all the controls are within reach. It's definitely more fun to drive than Prius and it gets better mileage. Although I didn't achieve the rated mileage, I did pretty well. To get the mpg numbers the cars are rated for you really have to drive more conservatively than I do. The point is, I got great mileage, even while driving with kind of a heavy foot and sorta too quick starts and stops.

Still, Insight makes me want to be a more eco-conscious driver. For starters, Insight nudges you with an up-to-the-minute average mpg number right in your face, just beneath the big digits that indicate the speed you're driving.

Overall, I thought Insight's more traditional dash gauge layout was more effective at making me think about my driving habits. The digital gauges are nicely framed by the top of the steering wheel and include an analog-style tachometer on the left and a large numeric speedometer in the middle, with trip meters (two are selectable) and mileage gauges below the speedo. On the right is a cluster of fuel and power gauges that show gas tank capacity, battery charge, when electric power assist is functioning, and when recharging occurs. While Prius puts on a pretty show with its color, animated display of power use, the center-mounted location of the screen takes it out of the direct line of sight of the driver. Plus, the default screen just shows how the power train is functioning. To track mileage you have to touch-select the display to another view.

I didn't feel like I had as much control over the mileage in the Prius as I did in the Insight. One contributing factor to this was the difference in transmissions: Prius comes only with an automatic, continuously variable transmission (CVT), while Insight offers either the original five-speed or, new this year, their own automatic CVT. A CVT has many more gear ratios than a standard three-speed automatic and the result is very smooth acceleration along with increased efficiency. You'll be seeing more CVTs on other cars. Honda has offered one in the Civic HX since 1996.

My stick skills were a little rusty, so my shifting of the Insight five speed was a little jerky at times (the CVT was unavailable for evaluation). But, and this is the key, manual transmissions are always more fuel efficient than automatics -- when driven appropriately. The driver can choose when to shift, timing each gear change for performance or economy. Insight helps you out by suggesting the optimum time to shift gears for greatest fuel economy. That really woke me up to how I drive. When Insight's little "Up" arrow appeared it always felt too soon to shift. Many of us like to wind up the rpms, then clutch and slam the next gear into place. Guess what: Bad for fuel economy. It's the same as stomping on the gas pedal with an automatic.

So I really tried to take Insight's suggestions of when to shift. Of course, the car doesn't know when you're in stop-and-go traffic, or that the light at the next intersection just turned yellow, so use common sense and don't upshift when you're about to hit the brakes. If you follow Insight's lead, you'll find yourself shifting into fourth gear at speeds as low as 29 mph sometimes. Even the owner's manual encourages the driver to always drive in the highest gear possible. I found that the electric assist motor is helpful if your gear is a little too high for your speed and it comes to the rescue when the engine bogs down.

Insight also shuts off the gas engine at stops under certain circumstances which the driver can control: air conditioning off or set to economy mode, gear shift in neutral or second. As soon as you put the car in first gear the engine springs to life. Most of the time Insight uses its electric motor instead of its traditional starter motor to very quickly spin up the gas engine, so there's no waiting. I found this feature useful on the two occasions I managed to stall the engine (I said I was rusty...). You just put it in neutral, then pop it into first gear and you're off. In the CVT version the engine restarts when you take your foot off the brake.

Road Trip #2: Insight

We drove the Insight about 570 miles round-trip for the annual Renewable Energy Fair put on by the venerable Midwest Renewable Energy Association. It was the perfect vehicle for the occasion. There were Insights and Priuses on display and a few attendees were already proud owners of one or the other.

We managed to get around 62 mpg on the way there, but dropped down into the high fifties on the return trip. My theory is that the way I used the air conditioning had some effect. Air conditioning seems like a necessary option in a car that is shaped for minimal air resistance. I couldn't bring myself to drive at highway speeds with the windows down -- even just a little. This is a car with skirts over the rear wheel wells, for goodness sake! You appreciate the attention to aerodynamic design when gliding down the highway at eighty, er, I mean sixty miles per. It really slips through the air. But getting back to the air conditioning, I kept cycling it on and off during the drive there, while on the drive back I let Insight use its climate control system to keep the cabin a comfortable 65 degrees. This seemed to keep the air conditioning on pretty much all of the time. The comfort level was marginally better, but not worth the mileage hit.

Sugar or Plain?

The Prius is a fairly standard looking sedan, while Insight is sporty, perhaps even sexy, if you accept the use of such adjectives with cars. Almost every day that I drove the Insight someone asked me about it or gave me a thumbs-up or similar gesture of approval. Not a peep about the Prius -- nobody even looked twice. This will be another deciding factor when the time comes to choose one or the other. Do you want to blend into the carscape and keep your eco-consciousness to yourself? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Or do you want to wear your values on your...person?

The interesting dichotomy is this: Prius looks normal on the outside, futuristic on the inside (the unconventional dash layout and color LCD screen) while Insight looks sleek and new on the outside (those rear wheel skirts again) yet pretty standard on the inside. So choose Prius and feel like you're driving the future -- anonymously. Or choose Insight and be prepared to answer questions about it.

Both cars come standard with all the features you'd expect a $20,000 car to have: power windows and door locks, anti-lock brakes, keyless remote entry, theft deterrent systems, dual airbags, power assist steering and brakes, AM-FM radio-cassette player. About the only options are air conditioning and a CD player (dash or trunk mounted). Both cars have high-pressure low rolling resistance tires for better fuel economy. This makes the ride a bit noisier and telegraphs pebbles and bumps more than conventional tires. Sometimes the tires want to follow grooves in the road. (All of this was more noticeable in the Insight, which is 900 pounds lighter than Prius.) It's something you have to get used to and accept for what it is: part of the energy efficiency terrain.

Brass Tacks

I've read several reviews of both cars. One complaint that keeps coming up is that Insight has a maximum payload of 365 pounds. That's me and my wife, plus about seventy-five pounds of luggage. If we have to drop off our twenty-pound cat at the Vet on the way out of town we're down to fifty-five pounds of available cargo. That said, we did have plenty of room for our camping gear, weekend bags, a small cooler of juices and fruit, a box of magazines, and two cats. I didn't weigh the whole mess, but the car didn't drop a millimeter on its suspension. (Perhaps it has more to do with how much weight the engine can move.) I think the weight limit is a red herring. Still, we felt compelled to mention it to everyone we talked to, especially if they had some extra girth.

Let's compare the Insight payload with other two-seat cars. Honda's S2000 will carry 400 pounds, while a Toyota MR2 is rated for 445 pounds. Insight fares pretty well, especially considering that it gets more than twice the mileage of those powerful sports cars. Compare it to a compact sedan and you'll find Prius rated for 800 pounds, Toyota's Echo at 775 pounds, and Honda's Civic at 850 pounds. This puts things in perspective. If you want to haul some heavy stuff (or people) you probably won't buy a two-seater of any type. Honda plans to increase Insight's payload to 400 pounds in 2002 so they must take the reviews seriously.

I wondered about the life of the battery pack for each car -- and replacement cost. Toyota includes an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty on the battery and hybrid system, while Honda covers their battery pack for eight years or 80,000 miles. Both companies expect the battery pack to last "the life of the car," which they feel is closer to ten years. And both companies will continue the warranty period for subsequent owners, should you decide to trade-in or sell the car before the warranty ends.

Either of these cars could last a good long time, especially Insight with its non-rusting aluminum body. These hybrids will need support and fresh batteries later in their lives. They're transitional cars but there is no reason to think they will simply be cast aside when something better comes along. There are plenty of old gas guzzlers on the road even though most new cars get better mileage. So what about battery replacement cost? It's guesswork at this point. The batteries are expensive now (around $5,000 for Prius, $2,000 for Honda, according to their public relations people) but the cost could come down if a sufficient market for hybrids (or all-electrics) develops. On the other hand, if fuel cells clear the technology hurdles they now face there may be no need for battery packs, so the cost may remain high.

For $20,000...

What's my final answer? The ideal scenario is to have an all-electric car for the short-range trips that make up the bulk of most city-dwellers' driving, and another car without range restrictions for the long trips. Perhaps this could be a shared or rented car, if your long trips are infrequent. Many electric car enthusiasts (most of whom did their own conversions) keep an old gas-powered car around for the long hauls. I would prefer one of these hybrids. I like the Insight, but Prius is just as good a choice. Of course, if you want just one car to do everything, you can easily do it today with either Insight or Prius.

Both Honda and Toyota have plans in the works to use their hybrid powertrains in other models. Honda will offer a hybrid four-passenger Civic in 2002 (which will compete more directly with Prius), while Toyota has introduced a hybrid mini-van in Japan. Both companies are working on fuel cell technology, but estimates of time to market vary from five to ten years. Daimler-Chrysler is much farther along in this area and intends to have a methanol-powered fuel cell electric car on the market in 2004. On this side of the pond, Ford plans to roll out a hybrid SUV, believe it or not, in 2003. (I guess that's one way to approach the problem. If you gotta drive a behemoth, it oughta be a hybrid.)

Change is coming in the automotive industry. You can help it along by using your purchase power to show the car companies that low emission, high efficiency cars are desirable right now, not sometime in the future. The future is for zero-emission cars, and it's not too far off.

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